Britten’s introduction to Peter Grimes
Benjamin Britten: Introduction to Peter Grimes
Introduction to Peter Grimes written prior to the opera’s first performance at Sadler’s Wells (London, 1945)
During the summer of 1941, while working in California, I came across a copy of The Listener containing an article about George Crabbe by E.M. Forster. I did not know any of the poems of Crabbe at that time, but reading about him gave such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk, where I have always lived, that I searched for a copy of his works, and made a beginning with ‘The Borough.’ [ … ]: it is easy to see how [Mr. Forster’s] excellent account of this ‘entirely English poet’ evoked a longing for the realities of that grim and exciting seacoast around Aldeburgh.
Earlier in the year, I had written the music of Paul Bunyan, an operetta to a text by W.H. Auden, which was performed for a week at Columbia University, New York. The critics damned it unmercifully, but the public seemed to find something enjoyable in the performances. Despite the criticisms, I wanted to write some more works for the stage. ‘The Borough’ – and particularly the story of ‘Peter Grimes’ – provided a subject and a background from which Peter Pears and I began trying to construct the scenario of an opera. A few months later I was waiting on the East Coast for a passage back to England, when a performance of my Sinfonia da Requiem was given in Boston under Serge Koussevitsky [sic]. He asked why I had not written an opera. I explained that the construction of a scenario, discussions with a librettist, planning the musical architecture, composing preliminary sketches, and writing nearly a thousand pages of orchestra score, demanded a freedom from other work which was an economic impossibility for most young composers. Koussevitsky was interested in my project for an opera based on Crabbe, although I did not expect to have the opportunity of writing it for several years. Some weeks later we met again, when he told me that he had arranged for the commissioning of the opera, which was to be dedicated to the memory of his wife, who had recently died. On arrival in this country in April 1942 I outlined the rough plan to Montagu Slater, and asked him to undertake the libretto. Discussions, revisions, and corrections took nearly eighteen months. In January 1944 I began composing the music, and the score was completed in February 1945.
For most of my life I have lived closely in touch with the sea. My parent’s [sic] house in Lowestoft directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was coloured by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on to our coast and ate away whole stretches of the neighbouring cliffs. In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea – difficult though it is to treat such a universal subject in theatrical form. I am especially interested in the general architectural and formal problems of opera, and decided to reject the Wagnerian theory of ‘permanent melody’ for the classical practice of separate numbers that crystallize and hold the emotion of a dramatic situation at chosen moments. One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell. In the past hundred years, English writing for the voice has been dominated by strict subservience to logical speech-rhythms, despite the fact that accentuation according to sense often contradicts the accentuation demanded by emotional content. Good recitative should transform the natural intonations and rhythms of everyday speech into memorable musical phrases (as with Purcell), but in more stylized music, the composer should not deliberately avoid unnatural stresses if the prosody of the poem and the emotional situation demand them, nor be afraid of a highhanded treatment of words, which may need prolongation far beyond their common speech length, or a speed of delivery that would be impossible in conversation.
The scarcity of modern British operas is due to the limited opportunities that are offered for their performance. Theatre managers will not present original works without a reasonable hope of recovering their costs of production: composers and writers cannot thrive without the experience of seeing their operas adequately staged and sung: the conservatism of audiences hinders experimental departures from the accepted repertory. In my own case, the existence of Sadler’s Wells has been an incentive to complete Peter Grimes: the qualities of the Opera Company have considerably influenced both the shape and the characterization of the opera. Whatever its reception may be, it is to be hoped that the willingness of the Company to undertake the presentation of new operas will encourage other composers to write works in what is, in my opinion, the most exciting of musical forms.